Saturday, 25 January 2014

Finding a Path

I’m tired of Twitter: the tweets have become unmanageably numerous, their provenance byzantine and their relevance to my life questionable. And now I’m getting frustrated by Facebook: its algorithms are relentless, its process addictive and its friendships demanding. There are two friends in particular who cause me considerable anxiety: one of them has an astonishingly wide range of interests and pursuits, yet still finds time to document them all in detail - which makes me feel limited, like one who knows a great deal about stamp collecting but little about anything else; the other one is an advocate and supporter of more worthy causes than I even knew existed - which makes me feel guilty for not showing more concern for other peoples’ problems.

Social media undoubtedly bring the benefits of connectivity to millions, but they also bring a certain amount of pressure to follow-up all the interesting things, adopt all the right-on movements and keep up with events. At times I find it overwhelming and become paralysed by indecision. I know that if I were to adopt yet another interest or cause I would fail to deliver anything more than superficial activity when what is called for is deep and lasting commitment. It looks and feels like defeatism, but in the face of an overwhelming tide one must adopt a flotation tactic. It is time to de-clutter my mind.

As a way of limbering up I am starting with the physical objects around me. It’s not so difficult because there aren’t many: apartment living does not allow for the accumulation of much stuff. With neither garage nor attic in which to “store” incoming objects they soon acquire an awkward presence which begs the question of their real value in the scheme of things. In these circumstances the choices are simple: the stuff can be thrown out, freecycled or sold. Better still, it need never be introduced in the first place.

And then there are some time-consuming activities which can be culled in order to gain head-space. For example, I just read a magazine article which featured answers to the question “What is the best way to sand and re-polish my engineered wooden floor?”  Because of my incurable interest in DIY – woodworking especially – I was compelled to read every one of the answers avidly and critically - and to regret not having seen the question coming so that I could send in a response. The answers were of mixed quality but there was one in particular which impressively quoted the thickness of veneer likely to have been laid onto the substrate. On reflection, however, the one which stays with me was the one which said, in effect, “Get a life.”

But, returning to mental clutter, although I strive to live in a minimalist interior and limit the extent of my displacement activities, my mind is like an old mansion, its unused rooms filled with memorabilia and its outbuildings stuffed full of scraps of information which might come in handy. It needs sorting out. I am, of course, not the first to seek a solution to this condition, which is one reason for the universal popularity of belief systems, which work by persuading individuals to accept a pre-packaged explanation of the purpose of life. These systems may involve a deity, some form of spirituality or a mortal figurehead - but the one thing they have in common is the assuasive message that there is only one path to follow.

But there isn’t. So, short of a lobotomy, I must find a coping strategy. My preliminary investigations have uncovered a technique which just might work. It’s known as laughter yoga and seems quite simple: you just have to laugh.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Let Harmony Prevail

There's a night club in the basement of the building adjoining the one I live in. (Actually, I'm ambivalent about calling it a "night club" since, although it certainly functions only during the night, it has no criteria for membership - unless you count the policy of selective admission defined by the appearance of the hopeful patrons and administered at the door by blokes you would have to be crazy to argue with. But times move on and my quibble over terminology is most likely explained by a lingering nostalgia for the passing of the term "discotheque" and a smidgeon of resentment in knowing that I would certainly not get past these doormen). I have no first-hand experience of what goes on in that subterranean haunt, but I imagine it is the same kind of thing that went on in discotheques - dancing and pulling - different only in scale, being fuelled by cheaper, more available drink and drugs, and driven by bigger, louder sound-systems.

These past couple of weeks I've attended several late night meetings held in my neighbour's apartment with the operators of the night club - polite, well-intentioned chaps who have a bit of a problem - now that we have brought it to their attention. Their licence to operate depends - among other things - on their not creating a noise nuisance for the people upstairs who prefer to sleep at night. Unfortunately, recent alterations to the interior of their building have breached the acoustic insulation with the result that we have been able to hear the records being played down below. (“Hi Ho Silver Lining” is not one of them).

I am inclined to sympathise with the night club operators, obliged as they are to spend a deal of time and money fixing the acoustic leak. It’s not really their fault: shit happens. Besides, I find it rewarding to be in dialogue with a segment of society which is culturally distant from me despite its physical proximity. I say ‘distant’ as opposed to ‘distinct’ because there is a connection via the discotheque lineage. One advantage of being older is that you have the benefit of having been young and, with a bit of luck, you don’t forget the ages you’ve been: which facilitates the natural process of inter-generational tolerance and understanding.

A more difficult challenge in respect of tolerance and understanding arises when there is perceived to be little or no common ground, as occurs when inter-societal connections are non-existent or fractured. Here, in multi-cultural Britain, we have daily opportunities to experience this challenge. We have cities where people of different races, faiths and cultures live in close proximity but in separate enclaves, their lives coinciding often only when commercial transactions take place.

There is the possibility that this will change over time and that mingling and mixing will erode the extremes of cultural difference which alienate one group from another. Already there are inner-city schools where more than 50 native languages are spoken, and places such as these are at the forefront of the battle to foster mutual understanding. They are doing a great job but we can't leave them to do all the heavy lifting: we should all do our bit to speed up the process. One simple way to achieve this would be to distribute educational T shirts with simple messages that divert attention away from our differences, and emphasise instead those things that we do have in common. I like the way this one summarises the various ways in which humans choose to react to a universal human experience.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Luddites Never Stood A Chance

The precarious situation of the waged classes was highlighted in 1811 when the Luddites resisted the usurpation of their jobs by new-fangled machines. Since that time, employees have had mixed fortunes: some have managed to hang on to the coat tails of capitalism; others have found refuge in the relative stability of the professions; yet more have hunkered down in the bunkers of bureaucracy. Nevertheless the general trend is plain to see: the robots are coming and, as technology becomes more sophisticated, there will be fewer jobs for humans to do.

This effect, already well advanced in manufacturing industries, is now laying waste to the lower levels of clerical positions as more of us use online processes to complete our tax returns, book our flights or pay our bills. And the hot news is that it may soon be the turn of the teaching profession to feel the pinch, as several experiments involving the deployment of computers have demonstrated.

In India the pioneering work of Professor Sugata Mitra has shown that illiterate, non-English speaking children, given access for the first time to a computer terminal, quickly learn to find and navigate the internet. Furthermore, when set specific tasks, they make significant, measurable educational progress without the aid of teachers. In Ethiopia researchers have successfully brought knowledge (which is one definition of education) to remote villages where there are no schools by giving ipads to the kids. And in Kenya it's Kindles that are bringing reading to the masses. These results suggest that human intervention in the form of teachers may no longer be necessary. Some - Pink Floyd included - would even argue that the whole system of education is the establishment’s instrument of mass control and repression: in which case the demise of teachers should lead to a beneficial surge of individual development and creativity around the world.

The big tech companies are surely dedicated to the elimination of humans from their processes: they prefer algorithms. Facebook has a clever one which monitors your activity so as to work out your consumer preferences. It has another one which decides which of your “friends” it thinks you would like to hear from (by comparing your “likes”) and then ensures that those with different views will no longer irritate you by appearing on your newsfeed. Google is at it as well. A nifty piece of published research has proven that it delivers tailored search results to different individuals, despite their entering identical search terms under controlled parameters. In other words there is no such thing as a standard Google search: its algorithms will reinforce your prejudices and, in so doing, mimic the restricting activities of conventional education systems.

Sometimes algorithms may appear helpful – even beneficial – as when the likes of Kobo, Sony, Amazon et al. suggest books and records similar to those previously purchased - even if they don’t always get it right. I used to think that Tesco's algorithm was particularly prescient when it came to extrapolating my grocery preferences, until I realised that any fool, given enough time shopping in my company, could do as well. What Tesco really needs to work on is the programme that offers replacement items for those which are out of stock. My last delivery came with an aubergine shamelessly presented in place of a celeriac which, if deliberate, was tantamount to a provocative, mind-expanding experience, which is an uncharacteristic and dangerously subversive precedent for any algorithm.

The Luddites couldn't see it coming, but future employment prospects are only promising if you are a qualified algorithm writer - in which case you could have a job for life in the business of second-guessing human behaviour.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Time Waits for No Man

It’s New Year's Day and time for us all to adopt a positive, forward-thinking mindset, get started on those life-enhancing resolutions and be...well, resolute. But before blundering blindly into the year ahead of us, let's not forget to review the triumphs of the past year so that we can build on our progress. Did we achieve our goals? Did we even set any goals? Not all of us are methodical in this respect but, thinking back, there must be some achievement, however modest, that we can lay claim to. Perhaps we failed at a few hurdles on the way, but at least we had a go. Didn't we?

On the last day of 2013 I went to see the film The Epic of Everest which left me in no doubt as to the relative timorousness of my own aspirations. It’s the 1924 documentary film of the third attempt on Everest by pipe-smoking, British mountaineers dressed in Harris Tweed sports-jackets and Alpine hats. The climax of their expedition was the unfortunate demise of Mallory and Irvine, who may or may not have reached the summit, but showed great ambition in the trying.

They were not lone heroes - it was a team effort - and an important part of their legacy is the film itself which, meticulously restored by the British Film Institute and newly endowed with an evocative musical score, is wonderful. Considering the primitive state of film technology in 1924 the cameraman's achievement is remarkable on all fronts: technically it is terrific - as anyone who has fiddled with a camera in freezing conditions on a mountainside would surely agree; aesthetically it is remarkable for its sensitivity in capturing the landscape; and historically it is a unique record of life in isolated Tibetan communities.

The heavy, hand-cranked cameras could only follow the progress of the climbers from afar, so we will never know exactly what happened to Mallory and Irvine. What we do know is that theirs was a serious expedition, led by experienced mountaineers who were well equipped and thoroughly prepared - all of which amounts to best practice in terms of risk-management. The random elements of fate and human frailty, however, took their toll.

After the film show I had just enough time to drive to the supermarket to stock up on provisions for the next round of bingeing. If I had the logistical planning skill of the Everest expedition this would not have been necessary - there would have been strategically placed caches of supplies to see us through. But we all have our weaknesses, and one of mine is a feeble grasp on the practice of strategic time-management. I am familiar with the theory: identify your goals, organise them in order of priority, and then allocate time and resources accordingly. But the theory makes no mention of the subtly undermining power other people have to distort your schedule. Fortunately, I have lately come across an antidote to this - an easy-to-remember metaphor - "Time is the coin of your life. Be careful not to let other people spend it for you" - which I intend to adopt so as to keep me on track (better late than never).

With this in mind and my shopping stashed on board, I was intent on driving directly home for the next item on my schedule - dinner. But I swung the van out of the parking space in such a determined way that I failed to notice the bollard. It has left an ugly, scarred dent in the door to remind me that bold, purposeful action is all very well but fate and human frailty can strike anytime, anywhere - even at closing time in Sainsbury's car park. And now I have to make an unscheduled visit to the garage.